Rogue trader

Malcolm Glazer is back for more at Old Trafford, but all he seems to have achieved so far is to build an opposing alliance between board and fans. Ashley Shaw reports

I am sure Malcolm Glazer thought it would be easier than this. In launching his bid for Manchester United he has unwittingly galvanised the club’s fans, management, directors and playing staff into an effective opposition. Has there ever been a precedent for a hostile takeover overcoming such overwhelming odds in football or any other business?

If the takeover bid was a popularity contest then it would never have got off the ground, for the protesters have so comprehensively outplayed the American’s barely extant PR machine that he has been demonised in almost every branch of the media. If we are to believe his portrayal, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ owner is the worst kind of Wal-Mart capitalist, concerned purely with how much more revenue he can squeeze from the club, so the thought that United, already over-sold in the eyes of most supporters, might end up in his grubby little hands has unified the club like no other issue since the Munich air disaster.

The demonising process has been in full flow for months now, with little good PR to counterbalance the bad and, while there have been predictably bone-headed interventions from groups such as the Man­chester Education Committee, there has also been a good deal of intelligent protest aimed at key sponsors and a canny manipulation of the media con­ducted by groups such as IMUSA and Shareholders United.

This unprecedented uproar can in part be explained by the manner in which Glazer has gone about stalking the club: stealthily raising his shareholding in the club with few words of succour for those with the club’s best interests at heart. This has led most intelligent people to believe that the American is indulging in corporate vandalism rather than seeking to improve the fortunes of an already well run operation.

Glazer’s behaviour has been bizarre. His stated aim was to buy Manchester United for his son Joel, apparently a fan of the club. To this end, he steadily increased his shareholding to 28 per cent. Yet last November at the AGM he defied the advice of both his PR men and his financiers by voting out three mem­bers of United’s board following their rejection of his overambitious takeover bid. Moreover, as United fanzine Red Issue suggested in November, a report given added credence by its republication in the Observer recently, Glazer attempted to sell his shares in the club following this embarrassment but discovered that their subsequent collapse in price would have left him with a nasty cold.

So to Glazer’s latest, slightly improved but more unpopular than ever, offer for the club. Does he still want control, or is this part of an extravagant exit strategy? It would seem that far from wanting to own United, a result that would leave him with an asset of diminishing value considering the nature and vehemence of the protests, Glazer might in fact be hoping that the club will eventual cave in and offer to buy back his shares at a premium price. This is called “greenmailing”, a practice outlawed in some jurisdictions following the ex­ploits of Donald Trump, Sir James Goldsmith et al in the 1980s.

Of course, United’s board are principally to blame for the current crisis. Taking the club on to the Stock Exchange has left United uniquely vulnerable among the world’s blue-chip sports brands and consequently under perpetual threat of takeover. It isn’t Glazer’s fault that United have been left exposed like this: any shark who smells blood is pre-programmed to hunt its prey. The problem now is what the board and fans can do to avert a seemingly inevitable takeover by Glazer or some­one else.

Clearly the growing influence of Shareholders United represents a bul­wark against predatory in­ves­tors and the board has reluctantly come to accept that the larger the fans’ shareholding in the club, the less likely a successful takeover. Now the board seem ready to take the next logical step of buying back shares in a bid to break the vicious circle.

So with a friendly dialogue opened up between board and fans, United look set to achieve something unique at the top end of English football: a club geared for huge profit underpinned by directors and supporters singing from the same hymn sheet. But, before Shangri-la can be achieved, both parties need to deal with the clear and present, for there is little doubt that Glazer would completely alienate the support.

Yet far from being cowed by the threat of an American take­over, United’s support has been energised by a spirit of revolution. Planned demonstrations and mass civil disobedience saw stores owned by United’s key spon­sors Nike and Vodafone forced to close early in Manchester city centre last month, with similar dem­onstrations planned worldwide as United’s support finally flexes its not inconsiderable muscle.

Then there is the last resort option: fans “doing an AFC Wimbledon” and setting up a new club at the foot of the non-League pyramid should Glazer’s designs on United prevail. Apparently Eric Cantona and Ole Solskjaer have already been in discussions with key organisers of the fledgling club, to be called “FC United”, while a plan to use Manchester City’s stadium to accommodate an anticipated 20,000-strong home gate is realistic given that the club have to give up the ground for public use on 130 days a year as it was constructed with lottery money.

And if you think all this is far-fetched, don’t forget the radical history of the city. Should Glazer get his way and the new club emerge, it would be a remarkable step, but not incredible in light of others in United’s history.

From WSC 218 April 2005. What was happening this month